Notebook, 1993-


Victor Vladmirovich Khlebnikov

Lurking at the margins of Russian literature, Victor Vladmirovich Khlebnikov, the King of Time and President of Planet Earth [despite the megalomaniacal sound, Khlebnikov was only signifying his membership in a proposed organization where everyone was a President--a world government of artists, scientists and intellectuals dedicated to counteracting the social ills fostered by political states], may at last move closer to the center of international recognition.

Khlebnikov belongs to the period of the Russian Civil War and its euphoric revolutionary aftermath--that brief interval when the dream of contemporary art transforming the future almost seemed possible. He died in a provincial hospital at the age of 36 in 1922, before Stalin's dictatorship withered Soviet creativity in the bud. Khlebnikov's life was unremarkable enough until he embarked upon a literary career, published [in 1910] his most celebrated poem. "Incantation by Laughter," and joined the circle of young artists and writers eventually labeled the Cubo-Futurists.

The group, which included Mayakovsky and Malevich, forged links between poetry and the visual arts. The dominant style of Russian letters of the period, Symbolism, stressed tasteful, conscious "literariness," so the Cubo-Futurists, following a venerable tradition, set out to shock the middle classes. Like the Futurists of Italy, they staged noisy extravaganzas; Cubo-Futurist poetics advocated a coarse vernacular, a whiplash line, verbal antics such as the pun and double-entrendre and a garnish of typographical whoopee. None found this approach more congenial than the otherwise shy and soft-spoken Khlebnikov. Even today he still baffles convectional Russians, though he has always enjoyed a high reputation among the cognoscenti.

The capacity of language to affect the world was one of his passions. "For him," states translator Paul Schmidt. "the shift in sound that produces a shift in meaning was a shift in the structure of the universe." Khlebnikov was an innovator who often resembled an American jazz performer: "He worked with irregularities, unequal line lengths, meters that varied from line to line in a single poem, variable stanza length, irregular rhyme patterns. He made use of patterns and tropes from folklore and from chants, incantations and shamanistic language. And he managed to create an entire poetics in that area of language the Anglo Saxon tradition tends to belittle as "play" - neologism, palindromes, riddles, puns."

Such verbal felicity, Khlebnikov's great strength, patently handicaps translation, but Schmidt's renderings capture the snap-crackle-and-pop linguisitic ferment in judicious English equivalents. Khlebnikov transcends his period yet is tethered to it by his sublime, or naive, faith in the idea of linear progress in the arts. The curious mathematical speculations gathered as The Tables of Destiny [Khlebnikov was trained as a mathematician], the essay on the Radio of the Future, the various exhortations to the artists of the forthcoming World government reflect Bolshevism's love of the utopian beyond; but Khlebnikov's immediate and pragmatic ideas, the treatment of the word for its own sake, his poem-spectacle-play "Zangezi," a surrealist wit delighting in novel transpositions and a rich vein of fantasy, clearly prefigure a number of modernist developments. "The word's wild highwayman" comes riding, riding, in Schmidt's translation, toward the wider audience Khlebnikov deserves.

[Taylor, Robert. "Some verbal Antics from a Russian Poet: In The Boston Globe, 12/11/1985. RE: The King of Time, poems, fictions, visions of the future by Velimir Khlebnikov, translated by Paul Schmidt, edited by Charlotte Douglas. Harvard Univ. Press. 1985.]



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